Offshore Shell Religions and Idolatry on Fantasy Hawaii: A Review of Max Gladstone’s Full Fathom Five

To steal a man’s wallet from his front pocket you pressed against his thigh in place of the wallet’s weight. To steal a man’s soul, you pressed against him with your dreams and visions, so he wouldn’t notice when his own lost color.

This is the fourth time I returned to the world Mr Gladstone created in his Craft Sequence of novels featuring gods as extended metaphors for corporations and lawyer-sorcerers who make arguments upon the laws of nature. For Full Fathom Five, Mr Gladstone transported me to an island nation that resembles Hawaii in culture and appearance, but functions more like the Cayman Islands in its world of divinity-based economics. What this fantasy island nation provides is a service like none other in the world—their priests are capable of crafting mindless “idols” where other multinational corps and wealthy foreigners can stash their wealth (frequently involving intangibles like “soulstuff” that is used as currency in this world)—and it helps them preserve their sovereignty against other weightier, nastier countries. It’s a natural extension of the systems that Gladstone introduced in previous books: if gods are corporate entities, then idolatry can represent shell companies or offshore banking, where massive amounts of metaphysical wealth (legit or shady) can be discreetly stashed away.

While familiar names and faces like Catherine “Cat” Elle, Elayne Kevarian, and Teo Batan made appearances in Full Fathom Five, the story’s protagonists are two new characters: a priest of the island’s unique church/bank named Kai, and a teenage cutpurse called Izza. Something strange was happening with the lifeless idols Kai ministers to—they were apparently gaining sentience, threatening the credibility of their priestly order, and inviting unwanted lawsuits by disgruntled clients making losses on their investments. Meanwhile, Izza and her band of homeless larcenous urchins on the island had been secretly worshiping minor gods that appeared to them, but these beings were mysteriously dying off one by one. One can broadly describe Full Fathom Five (and other books in this series) as fantasy novels, but they often share just as much similarity with legal/finance thrillers.

Again, the star of Mr Gladstone’s Craft Sequence novels is the exquisite world-building that both stretches and preserves the absurdity of faith-based macro- and microeconomics. On an island that prides itself on financial neutrality, foreign gods are not allowed within its borders—so of course, one of the job of customs officer is to prevent the smuggling of religion (literal “cargo cults”) onto its shores by “smuggler priests”. And in spite of the crassly capitalistic and transactional portrayal of faith in this book, it also gets immensely spiritual at times. That is a tightrope that Mr Gladstone had learned to walked really well over the course of these books. There is cynicism and sincerity on either ends of his balancing pole.

Mr Gladstone also introduced his first transwoman protagonist in Kai in this book, and I like how that aspect of her identity is treated with a sort of respectful nonchalance. Yes, it’s mentioned but it remained largely irrelevant to the plot, and I wonder if it is a reference to the third gender Māhū priests of Hawaiian culture.

Full Fathom Five is part of Mr Gladstone’s ongoing triumph against conventional fantasy. There is pretty much nothing in the genre that’s like it, and one can easily see how he continuously improved in his writing if one reads his books in their publication order. I also recognise his efforts in colouring his fantasy world with believable racial and gender diversity without the in-your-face performative and fetishistic energy in the way some authors do it.

Rating: 4/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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